The statelet is breaking apart amid factional fighting, serious violations of human rights by the Kurds themselves and continuous military pressure from the government in Baghdad.
But since the early days of liberation from Iraqi rule and the establishment of a Kurdish administration, ordinary people in the enclave have witnessed a decline into feuding, internecine violence and severe repression.
Amnesty International last week denounced the Kurdish political parties for perverting the course of justice, using torture, committing assassinations and killing prisoners.
"There is a deep sense of betrayal among many people in Iraqi Kurdistan today," Amnesty said. "The Kurdish political leaders' promises to uphold and respect human rights were nothing more than hollow gestures."
The Turkish government has long sought to forestall the creation of a Kurdish national unit on its borders. Turkey is fighting its own war against a Kurdish insurgency, a conflict which has cost at least 14,000 lives since 1984.
Western air forces depend on Turkish facilities at the Incirlik Nato base to maintain British, American and French patrols over Iraq north of the 36th parallel. The air umbrella was set up to protect the "safe haven'' under the authority of the United Nations Security Council. The UN feeds about 750,000 Kurds and seeks to return refugees to their homes.
In 1991 Kurdish forces pushed the Iraqis out of a crescent of territory extending from the Syrian frontier to the border with Iran. It included the cities of Arbil and Suleimaniyah, although the Iraqis held on to the important oil centres of Kirkuk and Mosul.
Within their safe haven the Kurds set up an assembly and conducted elections in their first democratic expression of national will.
But the results showed a roughly equal split between the rival Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Divided by family loyalties and prone to interference by Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the factions soon turned on each other.
Last week a car bomb killed 78 people in the marketplace at the border town of Zakho. Nobody can say who planted it. The KDP blamed the PUK; the PUK blamed Iraqi agents.
The parliament building in Arbil, once a symbol of national renewal, is occupied only by a group of members staging a protest sit-in.
"We want the war between the parties to stop so that the government can resume its work," said the assembly president, Jawar Namek.
Neither external influence nor domestic unhappiness seem able to halt the conflict between the KDP and the PUK. Their feud has cost about 2,000 lives since fighting broke out in May last year.
"We are telling them that they are playing into Saddam Hussein's hands," said a Western official, "but they don't want to hear it." The last serious outbreak took place around Arbil on 25 February, when at least 100 militiamen are said to have been killed.
International relief agencies are reviewing their operations because of the danger to staff caught up in the violence. Aid workers also face a pemanent threat from the Iraqi secret police. Baghdad has offered $10,000 (£6,200) to anyone who kills a foreigner "on the sacred soil of Iraq".
For the moment, Western interest in keeping up pressure on Iraq allows the Kurdish enclave to fulfil its crudest political purpose - to deny sovereignty over all Iraqi territory to President Saddam Hussein. After that, the Kurds may be on their own again.